Friday, November 24, 2006

The Phonaesthemic

Structural linguistics is all about the question "Where does meaning come from?" The simplest way to undermine structural linguistics is to turn the question into "Who does meaning come from?" However the result of such a turn tends to be that people talk past one another, each side believing that the other is responding to a question that really doesn't matter. But if we stick with the question "where does meaning come from?" it is not a foregone conclusion that structural linguistics provides an answer that is true to language or necessarily adequate for general purposes.

A case in point is the phenomenon of phonesthesia or sound symbolism. Phonesthesia is perhaps best attested in "exotic" languages, but it occurs in European languages too. In English phonesthesia is frequently found in the elements of speech known as phonaesthemes. Are phonaesthemes rather anomolies, or are they rather more pervasive? Is there in English a broad pattern of creating meaning from the way a word is spoken?

Take for example the set of words tip, tap and top which are not, as far as I know, commonly regarded as phonaesthemic. Also keep in mind tape, type, and taupe. The structuralist is absolutely correct about taupe. The difference between taupe and top for instance is a case of a purely abritrary relation between sounds and meanings. Is the same true of the differences between tip, tap and top? I don't believe so. All three convey a meaning of being at an extremity symbolized by the letter t; the p symbolizes abruptness; and the vowels indicate the nature of the extremity, whether pointed, flattened or rounded.

What then of tape? It's a little sticky, as is type. Are the meanings of these words colored by the phonaesthemic element of tip, tap and top? It's ambigiuous. They could be ceded to the structuralist, but perhaps the poet would take better care of them.

The claim against structuralism is not absolute here. Frequently, but not in all cases, meaning comes directly from the way a word is spoken. The claim gives us sufficient reason to question some of the conclusions that are drawn from structural linguistics. The reality of language may be more ambigiuous than any current theory admits.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:36 AM.


Blogger cantastorie said...

The idea of many structuralists is that meaning can be defined internally to the specific language we are analysing. THe meaning of a word is determined by its relations to other words (in absentia and in praesentia).
The fact that some phonosymbolism exists doesn't confute the claims of a sensible structuralism. Meaning can be motivated by sound, but it can also not be motivated. Evolution of language can change any previous "sound" motivation to the meaning of a word. And that is the point of structuralism. Structuralism doesn't care about motivation of the meaning of a word, but about the system that it creates within the langue and the specific text in which it is.

November 26, 2006 1:20 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I'm happy to have caught the attention of a sensible structuralist. My counterclaim is that phonosymbolism may also be (a) systemic and (b) an active historical process. No doubt the wise structural linguist will make accomodations for phonosymbolism. But to what extent?

November 26, 2006 9:56 AM  
Blogger cantastorie said...

I two potential counter-counterclaims ;)

1) phonesthesia (or phonosymbolism) could be cultural dependent (or Lebensform dependent if we like the second Wittgenstein). What is acknowledged as phonosymbolism in a specific language (or even sociolect) could not be acknowledge (or used) in another.
I have to admit that I am short of scientific data on the topic, I'll have to do some research.
2) There is an article by Deleuze which english title should sound something like "How can you recognize structuralism?". In this article Deleuze states that a sound structuralism acknowledges that each structure is always incomplete, it has always an empty slot that makes it unstable (that is the fate of human knowledge). This makes every structure slide on other structure in a game of mutual references.
Thus the system of phonosymbolism (as a general system of language, or as a local system in a specific language) could be one of these structures interacting with the one described by the more traditional structuralism.

November 27, 2006 12:02 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Ah. Good points. (1) I think this is true but there are implications to explore. I would assign phonaesthesia to the habitus and note how the fact of embodiment creates or enables certain possibilities. This leads me to (2). Is the systematicity of practice of the same order as the systematicity of structure? I don't know. I will follow up on your reference to Deleuze if I can find it--or some other text of his, as I left off reading Deleuze before I was really finished with him.

Now to clarify my thinking here, what I am interested in is not just the phonaestheme in itself, but the kind of meaning that colors words like type or tape. Here's another related example. I submit that pots, tots, dots, and bots are all round. No dictionary will tell you that a bot is round, but the language suggests as much, even as it allows for you to say, poetically, "skinny bot," "flat bot," "liquid bot" and so on. The meaning here is not simply a case of word associations. The act of enclosing a rounded central vowel within plosives suggests in English something that is round. If it's to be allowed then, what is the source of this power of suggestion? In my view it is not langue, but parole.

November 27, 2006 1:40 PM  

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